By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor
The Colebrookdale is the most sophisticated tourist railroad startup I’ve ever seen. In 5 short years it has repaired the track, deployed a cadre of skilled and dedicated volunteers, raised a lot of money, created a beautifully restored train set, built two replica depots and a mid-route activity venue, and developed a fine-dining dinner train program. Add to that a strong emphasis on historic interpretation program and an almost compulsive attention to detail–everything has a finished look to it. They’re pushing on all fronts. Very impressive.
The 8.5-mile ex-Reading branch line extends from Boyertown to Pottstown along the valleys of Ironstone Creek, Manatawney Creek and finally the Schuykill River. The railroad opened in 1869 to serve a pioneer concentration of iron mining and smelting. Eventually part of Conrail, it was purchased by the state to prevent abandonment, sold to the county in 2001, which in turn sold it to East Penn Railways. The freight traffic disappeared and the county bought it back in 2009. That opened the door for the newly formed non-profit Colebrookdale Railroad Trust to reboot the line as a tourist railroad in 2014, with the hope of future freight.
Trips start in Boyertown, the railroad’s headquarters. The ornate small depot mimics the high Victorian style of the Reading’s 19th century architecture and is complemented by outbuildings in the same style. Between the gravel parking lot and the depot is a new brick walkway constructed from a stock of 180,000 used street pavers from Pittsburgh. Spaced along the walkway are original Philadelphia gas lampposts. They’ve been restored to like-new appearance. The heads are still being installed and they’ll be gas-fired, not converted to electricity.
The train includes four heavyweight passenger cars and an open car, operated pull-pull with a locomotive on each end. The power is ex-Pennsylvania Rail Road GP9 #7236, painted in Colbrookdale colors and ex-Norfolk Southern GP38 #5128, recently acquired and still in NS colors.
The heavyweights glisten in spotless Pullman green. Three of them, a coach and two table cars, were derelict maintenance of way cars that were languishing at museums and tourist railroads with no prospect of restoration. They’re beautiful now, but the way they were restored requires some explanation. The exteriors feature multiple oval stained glass windows and rectangular stained glass panels above the windows that these cars never had. The interiors feature beautiful, ornate woodwork and stained glass light fixtures for a Victorian look that these spartan heavyweights never had. What’s going on here?
I put that question to Nathaniel Guest, executive director of the Trust and the person most responsible for the whole Colebrookdale project. Guest told me he was trying to replicate the first generation of steel heavyweights built at the end of the wood car era, about 1905-1915. Esthetically they were transition vehicles. Some even had their sides scribed to resemble wood. The ornate Victorian style carried over to them, yet almost none have been preserved. Think of the first steel 20th Century Limited, he said. Instead, the image we have of heavyweight passenger cars is the minimally-decorated post-1920 version. The restored cars were junkers, and Guest saw an opportunity to fill a preservation niche and do some interpretation in the bargain. The impressive woodworking and stained glass were all done by the railroad’s employees and volunteers.
Here’s a rundown of the passenger car roster.
-CRR 5033 “Storm King” From Saratoga and North Creek, former CNR coach. Restored as first class parlor. Built CC&F 1924 (?)
-CRR 5030 “Valhalla”. From Saratoga and North Creek, former CNR coach. Restored as “baggage-buffet-lounge”. Its baggage door lines up with the depot’s pedestrian ramp to make the train ADA accessible. It has been fitted with modern commuter train walkover seats, but all have been newly reupholstered in blue plush. Built CC&F 1924 (?) Awaiting interior from Barney and Smith heavyweight sleeper of same name.
-Colebrookdale RR “Lion Gardiner.” From Everett Railroad, former Pullman “Lake Girard” 10-1-2 sleeper, built 1924 Restored as first class dining. Awaiting interior from a Wagner Palace Car salvaged from a body in Ohio.
-CRR “Secret Valley Explorer” Open Car. From Saratoga and North Creek, former Rutland flatcar. Built 1910.
-CRR 2001 (name not yet announced). From Conway Scenic Railroad. Former Maine Central. Under restoration as a coach. Pullman 1914
-CRR “Beaver” (new name not yet announced). From Everett Railroad, former Pullman “Beaver” 12-1 sleeper, built 192(7)? To be restored in sleeping configuration
-B&O Baggage. 1913. CRR identity not yet announced. Under restoration to make it weather tight and aesthetically more pleasing (ie, removing 100 years worth of rot).
For light traffic days, the Colebrookdale has continued the short line tradition of acquiring and restoring a doodlebug. It’s Brill #M-55, built in 1930 for the Arizona Eastern and acquired from the Belvedere & Delaware tourist line.
The 10-15 mph trip down the Secret Valley is a scenic one, following the winding tree-lined stream through rock cuts, high fills and across several bridges. At the halfway point is a former Reading building now used for educational activities. Next to the waiting platform is a new wood water tank, anticipating future steam operations. The trip currently ends on the north edge of Pottstown next to a county park. It will be extended a short distance to the new depot, currently under construction.
I mentioned the attention to detail. The railroad has created two logos, one an ornate coat of arms, the other the interlocked letters CRR.
Guest says the designs reflects the line’s British heritage. The railroad was named for the early ironmaking village of Colebrookdale along its tracks, itself named for Coal Brook Dale, England, site of the world’s first ironworks. The logos are omnipresent, on all crew members’ hat badges and lapels, including the white smocks of the dining car crew.
A complete set of new mile posts and No Trespassing signs has been installed featuring the logo and the same typeface used in all other signage and marketing materials. Someone has clearly thought through an image and marketing plan.
There are currently 9 full time employees in administration, restoration, operation and from 6-10 part timers. The trust has 250 members, with 120 on the volunteer roster and 20 active at any given time.
Ridership was about 25,000 in 2018, and has been increasing slightly each year. There have been occasional freight moves, but they are not predictable.
The railroad has completed the process of becoming a Certified Autism Center, which is a designation that demonstrates the organization’s commitment to ensuring guests and families with children who have autism and sensory disorders have the best possible experience.
Colebrookdale Railroad implemented the CAC program, which requires staff training and certification through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), to further welcome all families, regardless of their needs.
In recent years, the popularity of “autism-friendly” options has grown; however, parents and families often seek out organizations that have completed additional research-based training or certification to ensure their needs can be met. IBCCES also created AutismTravel.com, a free online resource for parents that lists certified destinations and connects families to other resources and each other. Each destination or attraction listed on the site has met Certified Autism Center requirements, which include extensive staff training conducted by leading autism experts.